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date: 17 May 2021

Coleman, (Randolph Denard) Ornette (jazz)free

  • Gunther Schuller
  • , revised by Barry Kernfeld

Updated in this version


(b Fort Worth, March 9, 1930; d New York, June 11, 2015). American saxophonist and composer, father of Denardo Coleman.

1. Life.

He began playing alto saxophone at the age of 14 but not long afterwards changed to the tenor instrument. His early professional work with a variety of southwestern rhythm-and-blues and carnival bands seems to have been in a traditional idiom, but in 1948 he began to develop a style predominantly influenced by Charlie Parker. Wherever he tried to introduce some of his more personal and innovative ideas he met with hostility, both from audiences and from musicians. While touring the Gulf Coast with a rhythm-and-blues group he played a radical solo at a dance and afterwards was assaulted; his tenor saxophone was destroyed and he then acquired an alto saxophone. In 1949 he spent six months in New Orleans and worked mostly at nonmusical jobs while rehearsing his original new style; at this time he met Ed Blackwell. Coleman then returned to Fort Worth, after which he went to Los Angeles with Pee Wee Crayton’s rhythm-and-blues band (late 1949). While employed as an elevator operator in Los Angeles he studied (on his own) harmony and theory textbooks and gradually evolved a radically new concept and style, seemingly from a combination of musical intuition born of southwestern country blues and folk forms and his misreadings—or highly personal interpretations—of the theoretical texts.

From 1951 Coleman was again associated with Blackwell, and in summer 1956 the two men formed the American Jazz Quintet with the saxophonist Harold Battiste, Alvin Batiste, and Ellis Marsalis. At the same time he rehearsed with two drummers (Blackwell and Billy Higgins) and with the Jazz Messiahs, a bop group including Higgins and Don Cherry; in August 1957, with James Clay as the group’s saxophonist, the Jazz Messiahs performed some of Coleman’s compositions in Vancouver. At some point after April 1958 Coleman and Cherry replaced Dave Pike in Paul Bley’s group (with Charlie Haden and Higgins) at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles; a concert recording of that quintet exists from the autumn of that same year. Playing an as yet unacceptable form of free jazz, the group was fired soon thereafter.

While working sporadically at the Hillcrest and elsewhere, Coleman eventually came to the attention of Red Mitchell and later Percy Heath of the Modern Jazz Quartet. His first studio recording (for Contemporary in 1958) reveals that his style and sound were, in essence, fully formed at that time. The following year Bley moved to New York and Coleman took over his group, thus forming the classic quartet with Cherry, Haden, and Higgins. At the instigation of John Lewis the quartet began, in Hollywood, a series of recordings for Atlantic, the first two of which were entitled The Shape of Jazz to Come (which included Coleman’s compositions Lonely Woman and Congeniality; May 1959) and Change of the Century (with Ramblin’ and Free; October 1959). These recordings, which occasioned worldwide controversy, revealed Coleman performing in a style freed from most of the conventions of modern jazz. In between the making of these first two albums for Atlantic, Lewis also arranged for Coleman (and his partner Cherry) to attend the Lenox (Massachusetts) School of Jazz in August 1959. There followed engagements with the quartet at the Five Spot nightclub in New York (from mid-November 1959, with Blackwell replacing Higgins in spring 1960) and further albums for Atlantic; Free Jazz (made on December 21, 1960) for double jazz quartet, a 37-minute sustained collective improvisation, was undoubtedly the single most important influence on avant-garde jazz in the ensuing decade. On another recording, Jazz Abstractions (made earlier the same week), Coleman is heard in a variety of more structured pieces, among them Gunther Schuller’s serial work Abstraction for alto saxophone, string quartet, two double basses, guitar, and percussion.

Touring and New York club dates continued through 1961, but with many changes in personnel: Haden gave way to Scott LaFaro (September 1960), Jimmy Garrison (by March 1961), and David Izenzon (October 1961, when Garrison joined John Coltrane), and Bobby Bradford and Charles Moffett replaced Cherry and Blackwell (mid-summer 1961); Bradford left soon afterwards, and the group continued as a trio. In 1962, after only occasional work, notably a concert he produced himself at Town Hall involving his trio, a blues group, and a string quartet (December 21, 1962), Coleman retired temporarily from performing in public, primarily to teach himself trumpet and violin. His unorthodox treatment of these instruments on his return to public life early in 1965 provoked even more controversy and led to numerous denunciations of his work by a number of influential American jazz musicians, including Miles Davis and Charles Mingus. However, Coleman was well received in Europe during his first tour with the trio there in 1965, giving a major impetus to the burgeoning European avant-garde jazz movement. In the mid- and late 1960s he also became interested in extended, through-composed works for larger ensembles, and produced among other pieces Forms and Sounds for Wind Quintet (1965, recorded in England by the Virtuoso Ensemble, 1965, Pol. 623246–7) and Skies of America, a 21-movement suite for symphony orchestra (1972).

A film of the trio, made in 1966, was released around 1988 as the video David, Moffett, and Ornette. In 1967, with the addition of Haden, the group toured as a quartet incorporating two double bass players; Blackwell and then Higgins replaced Moffett in that quartet briefly in August 1967. Izenzon left the group around the beginning of 1968, to be replaced by Haden, and Dewey Redman joined during the same period, again making a quartet; from spring 1969 to 1973 Blackwell rejoined the quartet for touring and recording, though at times Coleman struggled for work in these years. By the early 1970s his influence had waned considerably, while John Coltrane’s dominance of saxophone styles had correspondingly spread. As Coleman turned increasingly to more abstract and mechanical compositional techniques (as in Skies of America), his playing lost some of its earlier emotional intensity and rhythmic vitality. But a visit to Morocco in 1972 and the gradual influence (especially rhythmic) of certain popular rock, funk, and fusion styles seemed to have revitalized his ensemble performances, a direction clearly discernible in his powerful electric band Prime Time, founded in 1975. This group first recorded in France in the same year as a quintet, with two electric guitarists, an electric bass guitarist, and a drummer, but thereafter it usually worked as a sextet, with a second drummer; Haden joined on double bass for the group’s performance at the Newport Jazz Festival New York in 1978, but not for its European tour later that year. In the 1980s the band performed and recorded as a septet with two guitarists, two bass guitarists, and two drummers, all amplified. Prime Time’s repertory drew on the various musical styles that influenced Coleman (including Moroccan music, jazz-rock, and free-jazz improvisation). Coleman’s own playing, however, a fascinating and basically inimitable amalgam of blues and modal, atonal, and microtonal music, remained unchanged.

From the 1960s Coleman was often joined by his son, Denardo Coleman, in concerts and recordings. Although in the 1980s he performed in public only intermittently, the recording Song X (1985) and a tour (1986), both made with Pat Metheny, brought him and his music a degree of attention he had not enjoyed for some years. A film, Ornette: Made in America, directed by Shirley Clarke and compiled from footage made in the 1960s and the early 1980s, was released in 1984, and two concerts entitled “Ornette Coleman Celebration” took place at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in 1987; the works performed were Notes Talking, for solo mandolin (1986), The Sacred Mind of Johnny Dolphin, for chamber ensemble (1984), Time Design, for amplified string quartet and electric drum set (1983), Trinity, for solo violin (1986), and In Honor of NASA and Planetary Soloist, for oboe, english horn, mukhavīṅā, and string quartet (1986).

Prime Time remained active through the 1980s, and around 1989 Chris Rosenberg, who was classically trained, became one of its two electric guitarists; Coleman’s student David Bryant, a keyboard player, replaced one of the two electric bass guitarists (setting the precedent for Coleman’s use of piano in his future groups); and instead of utilizing two conventional drum sets, Coleman employed Badal Roy, on tablā, as the group’s second percussionist. Prime Time continued with this instrumentation until 1995, at which point the leader reinstated the two bass guitarists. In 1987 Coleman participated in reunions of the American Jazz Quintet and his own quartet (with Cherry, Haden, and Blackwell) at the Ed Blackwell Music Festival. That same year Prime Time and the free-jazz quartet (but with Higgins rather than Blackwell) took part in the recording of a double album, In All Languages. The resulting tracks offer fascinating contrasts, as the radical electric group and the formerly radical acoustic quartet (now sounding in its own way “classic”) interpret in their own distinctive ways a number of the same titles, composed by Coleman. This same quartet gave a concert in Los Angeles in September 1990.

In 1994 Coleman formed his acoustic New Quartet, consisting of Geri Allen (piano), Charnett Moffett (double bass), and Denardo Coleman (drums). Following the practice heard on In All Languages, and to underscore still further the importance of improvisation in Coleman’s work, the New Quartet recorded two albums consisting mainly of the same collection of titles, but of course offering substantially different renderings (Sound Museum: Hidden Man and Sound Museum: Three Women, both c1994). By this time Coleman had come to be widely recognized as one of the giants of jazz—not just through critical acclaim, which had been a factor for decades, but through the emergence of a widespread audience for his work. A five-year “genius” award from the MacArthur Foundation which he received in 1994 helped to support his unceasingly creative projects, and the North Sea Jazz Festival presented him with its International Bird Award; this was a remarkable indicator, because the award had previously gone to players who were equally famous and deserving but stylistically rather more conventional.

Around this time Coleman founded his own record production company and label, Harmolodic. He recorded as a guest soloist with Yoch’ko Seffer (November 1995) and in duos with Allen (late 1995 or early 1996) and Rolf Kühn (1997), and toured and recorded in a duo with Joachim Kühn (1996–7). In July 1997 the Lincoln Center played host to a series of concerts by Coleman: his Skies of America, incorporating a symphony orchestra and Prime Time; a performance by a trio (with Haden and Higgins) and a quintet (with the addition of Wallace Roney and Kenny Barron); and a theatrical presentation in which Prime Time were supported by contortionists, fire-swallowers, dancers, and a video collage. In summer 1998 he appeared at the Umbria festival in Italy in a somewhat different quartet, comprising Lee Konitz, Haden, and Higgins. Coleman won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for his album Sound Grammar, recorded in concert in Italy in 2005 with two bassists, Denardo on drums, and the leader playing alto sax, trumpet, and violin. Playing alto sax, Coleman made his last studio album, a serene work entitled New Vocabulary, in a cooperative trio with two young musicians, the trumpeter and electronics player Jordan McLean and the drummer Amir Ziv, between 2009 and 2011; Adam Holzman joined on piano on three tracks.

2. Musical style.

Coleman’s music cannot be understood solely in terms of the concept that has generally prevailed since the late 1920s—that jazz is primarily a form of expression for a virtuoso soloist. It is conceived essentially as an ensemble music; founded on traditional roots, it makes consistent use of spontaneous collective interplay at the most intimate and intricate levels. This accounts for its extraordinary unpredictability, freedom, and flexibility. Coleman’s improvisations are highly mobile in tonality, rhythmic continuity, and form; they liberated the jazz solo both from an adherence to predetermined harmonic “changes” and a subservience to melodic variation. They also abandon traditional chorus and phrase structure, reinterpreting jazz rhythm, beat, and swing along freer, nonsymmetrical lines. Although it appeared to many to be incoherent and atonal, Coleman’s playing was essentially modal in concept, rooted in older, simpler black folk idioms—in particular a raw blues feeling. His wailing saxophone sound (produced in his early years on a plastic instrument) is never far removed from the plaintive human voice of African-American musical folklore. This essentially lyric approach, best heard on Lonely Woman (1959) and Sex Spy (1977), is linked to his “horizontal” concept of improvisation, a tendency explored earlier by such players as Lester Young and Miles Davis (in his post-bop modal style). Released from a strict adherence to harmonic functions and conventional form and phrase patterns, Coleman’s solos are intrinsically linear, evolving in a sometimes fragmented musical discourse (ex.1). His improvisations at fast tempos are marked by flurries of notes, or gliding, swooping, and at times bursting phrases, played with great intensity and conviction. Occasionally his work seems burdened by the overuse of sequential patterning. But it is the strength of conviction of his playing (especially when aided by like-minded colleagues such as Cherry, Haden, and Higgins) that produces a sense of the inevitable in Coleman’s art.

Ex.1 Coleman’s second “chorus” from Congeniality (1959, Atl. 1317); transcr. G. Schuller

Technically Coleman played as much “from his fingers” as by ear, an approach frequently resulting in nontempered intonation and unique tone-colors. These effects are even more noticeable in his less convincing performances on trumpet and violin, although even on these instruments Coleman can sometimes produce compelling improvisations by sheer instinct and musical energy.

Coleman’s style changed little from the early 1960s. Whether working in Moroccan musical traditions, in atonal, classically oriented works or, indeed, in rock- or funk-influenced idioms, his playing seems, in both sound and substance, to be capable at once of dominating and being assimilated by its surroundings.

From the mid-1970s Coleman espoused a theory which he called “harmolodic.” It is apparently based on the reiteration in varied clefs and “keys” of the same musical materials (lines, themes, melodies), thus producing a simplistic organum-like “polyphony,” principally in unrelieved parallel motion. It is not clear, however, how this theory functions in Coleman’s own improvisatory style (see also Harmolodic theory). He is also noted for his use of obscure, often contradictory, epigrams. Some observers see in these the “philosophical” analogues to his musical theories and concepts. Similarly, his notation of his own compositions—of which he wrote several hundred—is imprecise, gestural, and in a sense graphic, leaving the performer free to give individual and differing interpretations.

Coleman opened up unprecedented musical vistas for jazz, the wider implications of which have been explored in detail by his many imitators. From the 1980s onwards his compositional style, his group sounds (in both the electric and the acoustic settings), and his highly personalized saxophone playing were enormously influential.

Selected recordings

* – composed by Coleman

Something Else!!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman (1958, Cont. 3551)

Tomorrow is the Question! The New Music of Ornette Coleman (1959, Cont. 3569)

The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959, Atl. 1317), incl. *Congeniality, *Lonely Woman

Change of the Century (1959, Atl. 1327), incl. *Free, *Ramblin’

Twins (1959–61, Atl. 1588), incl. First Take

This is our Music (1960, Atl. 1353)

Free Jazz (1960, Atl. 1364)

Jazz Abstractions (1960, Atl. 1365)

Ornette! (1961, Atl. 1378)

Ornette on Tenor (1961, Atl. 1394)

Town Hall, 1962 (1962, ESP 1006), incl. *A Dedication to Poets and Writers

The Ornette Coleman Trio at the Golden Circle, i–ii (1965, BN 84224–5)

The Empty Foxhole (1966, BN 84246)

Saints and Soldiers (1967, RCA LSC2982)

Ornette at 12 (1968, Imp. 9178)

Crisis (1969, Imp. 9187)

Science Fiction (1971, Col. KC31061)

Broken Shadows (1971–2, Col. FC38029)

*Skies of America (1972, Col. KC31562)

Dancing in your Head (1975, A&M Hor. 722)

Body Meta (1975, AH 1)

Soapsuds (1977, AH 6), incl. *Sex Spy [duos with C. Haden]

Of Human Feelings (1979, Ant. 2001)

Ornette and Prime Time: Opening the Caravan of Dreams (1985, Caravan of Dreams 85001)

with P. Metheny: Song X (1985, Geffen 24096)

In All Languages (1987, Caravan of Dreams 85008), incl. *Cloning, *Mother of the Veil, *Peace Warriors, *Space Church

Virgin Beauty (1988, Portrait RK44301), incl. *Honeymooners

Sound Museum: Hidden Man (c1994, Harmolodic 314-531657-2)

Sound Museum: Three Women (c1994, Harmolodic 314-531914-2)

Tone Dialing (c1995, Harmolodic 314-527483-2)

Sound Grammar (2005, Sound Grammar 11953)

with J. McLean and A. Ziv: New Vocabulary (2009–11, System Dialing 009)


  • B. Abel: “The Man with the White Plastic Sax,” Hi-fi Stereo Review, 5/2 (1960), 40
  • G. Russell: “Ornette Coleman and Tonality,” JR, 3/5 (1960), 7
  • N. Hentoff: “Biggest Noise in Jazz,” Esquire, 55/3 (1961), 82
  • N. Hentoff: The Jazz Life (New York and London, 1961/R1975), 222
  • H. Pekar: “Tomorrow is the Question,” JJ, 15/11 (1962), 8
  • M. Williams: “Ornette: le coupable no.1,” Jh, no.193 (1963), 39
  • T. Martin: “The Plastic Muse,” JazzM, 10 (1964), no.3, p.13; no.4, p.14; no.6, p.20; 11/3 (1965), 21
  • J. Goldberg: Jazz Masters of the Fifties (New York and London, 1965/R1980), 228
  • D. Heckman: “Inside Ornette Coleman,” DB, 32 (1965), no.19, p.13; no.26, p.20
  • P. Nahman: “En Angleterre, premier triomphe européen pour Ornette Coleman,” Jh, no.213 (1965), 7
  • F. Paudras: “Nouvelle dimension: Ornette,” Jh, no.205 (1965), 17
  • V. Wilmer: “Ornette Tells it Like it is,” JB, 2/11 (1965), 16
  • J. Cooke: “Coleman Revisited,” JazzM, 12/5 (1966), 9
  • M. Harrison: “Coleman and the Consequences,” JazzM, 12/4 (1966), 10
  • A.B. Spellman: Four Lives in the Bebop Business (New York, 1966/R1970 as Black Music: Four Lives), 77
  • J. Cooke: “Ornette and Son,” JazzM, 13/5 (1967), 13
  • W.F. Mellers: Caliban Reborn: Renewal in Twentieth-century Music (London, 1968), 135
  • E. Raben: A Discography of Free Jazz (Copenhagen, 1969)
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  • M. Williams: Jazz Masters in Transition, 1957–69 (New York and London, 1970/R1980)
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  • M. Bourne: “Ornette’s Innerview,” DB, 40/19 (1973), 16
  • E. Jost: “Ornette Coleman,” Free Jazz (Graz, 1974/R1994)
  • S. Lake: “Stirring up Ornette’s Nest,” Melody Maker (Aug 17, 1974), 24
  • J. Pailhé: “Ornette Coleman, 1965,” Jh, no.302 (1974), 21
  • M. Harrison: A Jazz Retrospect (Newton Abbot, England, 1976, rev. 2/1977/R1991)
  • A. Taylor: “Ornette Coleman,” Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews (Liège, 1977, rev. and enlarged 2/1993)
  • H. Mandel: “Ornette Coleman: the Creator as Harmolodic Magician,” DB, 45/16 (1978), 17 [incl. discography]
  • G. Endress: Jazz Podium: Musiker über sich selbst (Stuttgart, 1980), 182
  • D. Wild and M. Cuscuna: Ornette Coleman, 1958–1979: a Discography (Ann Arbor, 1980)
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  • G. Giddins: Riding on a Blue Note: Jazz and American Pop (New York and Oxford, 1981/R2000), 179
  • A. Bresnick and R. Fine: “Ornette Coleman: Interview,” Cadence, 8/9 (1982), 5
  • W. Balliett: “Ornette,” Jelly Roll, Jabbo and Fats (New York and Oxford, 1983), 187
  • J. Rockwell: “Free Jazz, Body Music and Symphonic Dreams,” All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century (New York, 1983/R1997), 185
  • J. Litweiler: “Ornette Coleman: the Birth of Freedom,” The Freedom Principle: Jazz after 1958 (New York, 1984/R1990), 31
  • G. Giddins: Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation in the ’80s (New York and Oxford, 1985), 235
  • S. Lake: “Prime Time and Motion,” The Wire, no.19 (1985), 31
  • F. Davis: In the Moment: Jazz in the 1980s (New York and Oxford, 1986/R1996), 133
  • D. Richardson: “Playing it by Ear,” San Francisco Bay Guardian (June 25, 1986)
  • H. Mandel: “Ornette Coleman: The Color of Music,” DB, 54/8 (1987), 16 [incl. discography]
  • B. McRae: Ornette Coleman (London, 1988)
  • P.N. Wilson: Ornette Coleman: sein Leben, seine Musik, seine Schallplatten (Schaftlach, 1989; Eng. trans., Berkeley, 1999, as Ornette Coleman: his Life and Music)
  • H. Mandel: “Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time: Primeval Update,” DB, 57/11 (1990), 30
  • P. Watrous: “The Return of Jazz’s Greatest Eccentric,” New York Times (June 23, 1991)
  • J. Litweiler: Ornette Coleman: a Harmolodic Life (London, 1992, New York, 1994)
  • S. Block: “Organized Sound: Pitch-class Relations in the Music of Ornette Coleman,” ARJS, 6 (1993), 229
  • B. Blumenthal: “Ornette Coleman Still a Renegade after All These Years,” Boston Globe (Nov 27, 1994)
  • D. Richardson: “Tomorrow Has Always Been the Question for Ornette Coleman,” San Francisco Bay Guardian (Nov 9, 1994), 43
  • M. Cogswell: “Melodic Organization in Two Solos by Ornette Coleman,” ARJS, 7 (1994–5), 101
  • L. Porter: “The ‘Blues Connotation’ in Ornette Coleman’s Music—and Some General Thoughts on the Relation of Blues to Jazz,” ARJS, 7 (1994–5), 75
  • M. Jarrett: “Ornette Coleman: Interview,” Cadence, 21/10 (1995), 5
  • B. Kernfeld: What to Listen for in Jazz (New Haven, CT, and London, 1995), 71
  • B. Shoemaker: “Dialing up Ornette,” JT, 25/10 (1995), 42
  • S. Dollar: “The Lightning Rod,” DB, 63/2 (1996), 22
  • P. Richard and Y. Sportis: “Discographie de Ornette Coleman,” JhSpecial (1996), 33
  • D. Heckman: “Ornette Coleman Resurgence Fills the Air,” Los Angeles Times (May 23, 1997)
  • B. Ratliff: “A Jazz Radical Collides with Western Tradition,” New York Times (July 6, 1997)
  • <> (1999) [discography by R. Stubenrauch]
  • A. Shipton: “Freedom Principle,” Jazzwise, no.30 (2000) 16
  • S. Rush: Free Jazz, Harmolodics, and Ornette Coleman (New York, and Abingdon, England, 2017)
Annual Review of Jazz Studies
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J. Gray: Fire Music: a Bibliography of the New Jazz, 1959-1990 (New York, 1991)
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Jazz Review
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Down Beat
Jazz Journal International
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